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How U.S. Airlines Got a Whole Lot Safer

Airlines and regulators reverse a history of deadly crashes

Since the Jet Age began in the 1950s, air travel in the U.S. has never been safer. It’s been a decade since passengers have died in the crash of an airliner carrying more than 100 people, and there hasn’t been a deadly crash of a plane with more than 10 seats since a Colgan Air flight bound for Buffalo went down in February 2009. It’s a dramatic turnaround. From July 1994 to January 1997, an airliner crashed at least once every three months, killing a total of 805 people. “It was overwhelming,” says Frank Tullo, a former vice-president for flight operations at Continental Airlines. “They were falling out of the sky.”

The federal government intervened, but not with sweeping laws or regulations. Instead, a series of seemingly mundane, incremental changes, many recommended by the industry itself and put in place at little cost, have gradually made skies safer. “Everybody was looking for the home run that solved all of the accidents,” says Ed Soliday, a former United Airlines executive. “The more we got down to it, the things that had the biggest impact were base hits.”